Colleges and Universities are beginning their new academic year. When I was still teaching, I used to enjoy the week before classes began when you saw new students excitedly arriving on campus with their families to move into the dorms. It was a feeling of new beginnings and possibilities. My university had a whole slew of programs during orientation week for new students that were a mixture of information providing and socializing. At the end of it just before classes began, we had a big culminating event for all the new students in the huge Severance Hall, home of the famed Cleveland Orchestra. I would be one of the speakers at this event and each year, I would try to get students excited about what I felt was the chief attraction of being at a university.
The main thrust of my remarks was that their time at the university offered them something that they would never get anywhere else after they left, and that was easy access to good information. I told them that they could talk to to faculty who were experts in many fields who were only too happy to share their knowledge with anyone who asked. I said that we had wonderful libraries and librarians who were only too eager to help students find information. And all this was just there for the asking and they should make full use of it during their time there.
In general, I strove to strike an uplifting tone. But that was before there was a pandemic. This year students and parents and faculty and staff have a sense of foreboding, wondering if there will be fresh outbreaks that will cause everything to shut down again. While universities have taken measures to maintain physical distancing, mask wearing, and testing to reduce the chances of infections spreading, they have no control over what goes on off-campus and there have been many reports of students packing bars and other places without masks. Already some universities (including University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Notre Dame) that started with in-person classes have gone back to online after just a week after new clusters of infections were reported.
But a letter from a Yale faculty member and administrator to new students struck a particularly grim tone, suggesting that they be prepared to face some grim realities, including hospitalizations and even deaths.
In a July 1 email to Silliman College residents when Yale first announced its plan to reopen on-campus housing, Head of College and psychology professor Laurie Santos warned Yale’s “community compact” was not to be taken lightly, treated like some course readings and skimmed for main ideas. She explained that some staff members are from sectors of society that are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and that they do not have the choice of whether to come to campus. At the time, Yale was planning to test returning students once per week — a plan that the University modified several weeks later, when it announced that it would instead test students twice weekly.
“We all should be emotionally prepared for widespread infections — and possibly deaths — in our community,” Santos’s email reads. “You should emotionally prepare for the fact that your residential college life will look more like a hospital unit than a residential college.”